Note: This is the sequel to In Hell, and is rapidly building up into a longer piece of fantasy fiction
The screaming skies of Hell seemed to be dripping blood as the demon Kratak made his way up from the street, through the narrow portal, and into the outer chamber of the palace. To both sides of him, work gangs of Souls scraped and polished at the stone, shaping and forming it under the supervision of watch-demons. The palace, though incalculably ancient, was far from complete, and in the scheme of things, never would be.
Kratak ignored the watch-demons and the Souls. His heavy stride carried him through the lower, inner portal and into the main chamber where guard-demons stood aside when they recognised his Sigil of power. Kratak was a Demon-Master; not a very high ranking one, but any Master was far beyond the challenge of a mere guard.
Kratak was gigantic. His immense arms and legs were covered with grey skin like armour, studded and spiked with sturdy knobs and spines. His face, which grew into a heavy snout, was guarded with thick protrusions of bone above and below his amber eyes, and two hooked tusks thrust out of each side of his mouth. He was so tall that he had to bend his head to enter the inner portal, but he moved with a grace and speed belying his size and bulk.
His clothing was simple and functional. He wore short thick boots and leather overalls, both fashioned from the skin of a monster of the Abyss which he had killed in single combat. He was unarmed except for a rune-incised knife at his belt, but in one hand he carried a short staff of bone.At the top of this staff his Sigil was affixed, so intricately carved that the eye was lost in its lines and whorls, its circles and spirals and boxes. As he walked into the main chamber, he held the staff up, so that the Sigil was held up for the guards to see.
The main chamber was huge, so big that the far side was lost in darkness. Its black walls sloped up to a domed ceiling high overhead, illuminated only by narrow slits through which the red Sun of Hell shone dully. Things moved and crawled in the shadows, nameless things that even the guards who spent endless time in the chamber had never seen clearly, and had no wish to.
But Kratak had no business in the main chamber. In the centre of the floor there was a shaft leading down into utter darkness, and he paused only a moment before gathering himself together and letting himself fall into it.
The distance he fell was unknowable. It may have been only twice his own height, or he may have fallen just less than forever. Time and space could be twisted by the Master Demons, and there was no way to tell.
Kratak landed on his feet in a circular stone chamber illuminated by a glowing soul-torch set in the wall. The chamber was roughly finished, its single wall interrupted by doorways at regular intervals, leading into dark corridors. Kratak selected one and passed through it into complete darkness.
He had been down here many times before, but never got used to this stinking maze of passages, where strange sounds came out of the walls and the very air tasted of unknown things. No demon from the outer reaches ever came down here unless he had to, and no demon who came down here ever departed but with relief.
Here, in these vaults and tunnels, things happened which were only whispered of in the upper reaches of Hell, in the black desert under the red sun, among the caravans that crept along the lonely highways, and in the streets of cities like Dis and even Pandemonium. Only rumours ever emerged of what happened to demons, even if they be Masters, who fell out of favour with the Lords of Hell, and found themselves in these tunnels. Kratak – though he had been here many times before – hurried nervously through the maze, deeper and deeper, through tunnels half submerged in liquids whose nature he could not even guess, until he came, finally, to the place he sought.
It was a place of such profound darkness that even Kratak’s eyes could not see a thing, so vast that the noise of his footsteps disappeared into silence without an echo. But his other senses gave him an indication of what sat before him on a gigantic throne, high above the floor. Walking slowly and steadily to the foot of the structure, he made obeisance.
There was a faint rustling in the darkness, as the Lord bent towards him. The creature, Kratak knew, would be able to see him perfectly clearly; the Lords of Hell could do anything they wanted.
“Do you know why I have summoned you, Demon Master?” The Lord’s voice was a drumming inside Kratak’s head, vibrating like an earthquake in a distant sea.
“I have not been told, Lord.” Kratak had an idea why, but wouldn’t, of course, disclose that fact to the Lord. If the unseen creature on the throne imagined Kratak was privy to a leak, it would not hesitate to order Kratak’s body ripped apart, his individual energy patterns shredded and turned inside out for whatever knowledge could be gleaned from them. The Lords could not afford leaks.
“The Salamander men outside grow bolder, Demon Master.” The Lord’s voice hummed inside Kratak’s adamantine skull. “Caravans are ambushed by the day, and annihilated. At night, the Abyssal monsters roam the wastes, and approach the very gates of Dis. And, meanwhile, the forces of Admantirax and Pandemonium prepare to join hands against us, and the walls of the city are crumbling.”
There was a brief silence, as though the thing on the throne expected Kratak to comment, but he kept his peace.
“I charge you, Demon Master,” said the Lord, “to go out into the desert, to see what you can see. Find out what forces are arrayed against us, and what we must do to stem and turn back the rising tide. Also, I charge you to see to it that the work gangs are put to shoring up the walls, and preparing to turn the city into an impregnable fortress. You will do all this, and you will not fail.”
“I will not fail,” Kratak repeated formally.
It seemed almost that the creature on the throne chuckled. “Of course you won’t fail, Demon Master. You know what happens to those who fail. To your friend Rangbah, for instance.”
Kratak kept absolutely still, knowing that the Lord was looking for a reaction from him. He remembered Rangbah very well. Rangbah had been called down to the maze beneath the passage one day, and had never been seen again. But the very next morning, there was a new carving on the Triumphal Arch in the middle of Dis, a carving that looked for all the world like Rangbah, his eyes wide in terror and his mouth frozen in an endless scream.
Kratak never had known what Rangbah had failed to do, and he had no great desire to find out. When the Lord dismissed him, he made his way back through the narrow and noisome corridors, more than ever on his guard. The Lords of Hell were jealous of each other, and he knew that they had spies in each other’s entourages. If one of the rival Lords in Dis discovered his mission, it would have him destroyed without hesitation.
As he rose through the darkness into the domed main chamber of the palace, Kratak wondered where to start. His mission would have to be carried out in complete secrecy, of course, so an armed reconnaissance party was out. He might take one or two assistants along at the most, but it was always good policy to trust nobody and nothing. He shook his head as he stalked past the guards into the comparatively blinding light of the outer chamber. No, there was no way he could take the risk.
There was only one thing to be done: he would go alone.
First, of course, there were the walls to be seen to. The Lord was right, Kratak knew; the work-gangs of Souls were being used far too much in ornamentation and ceremonial building, and the defences of the city were being neglected. He also knew that his orders would be resented and as far as possible sabotaged by the other demon masters. But that was something that had to be vectored into any calculation. He would simply have to work his way around it.
Passing the immense mass of the Triumphal Arch, he paused a moment to look up at it. The figure of Rangbah, screaming, was already almost lost in a forest of other sculpture, figures coiling over each other, Souls and demons and beasts without a name, some grimacing ferociously and the others writhing in torment. Suddenly, and for the first time, he wondered how many others of these sculptures were demons like Rangbah, and decided that he didn’t want to know the answer.
He wondered, as he had several times since his interview with the Lord, why it had chosen him for this task. He wasn’t even a high-ranking demon master, one with sufficient pull to get work done against opposition. But maybe that was the point; he was low-ranking enough to be able to work silently and quietly. It didn’t matter either way. Whatever the Lord’s motives, if he failed, the repercussions for him would be the same.
He spent the rest of the Hellish day passing orders to the lesser demon masters, assistants and overseers. Of course, it was impossible to pull the work gangs entirely off the palaces and buildings, and set them all to work on the walls. That would have invited immediate reprisals from rival Lords and demon masters. However, with a little discreet juggling, he might be able to keep a pretence of work going on elsewhere while the real effort was shifted to the city defences. He had no illusions that it would last long enough to make a real difference, but it might get him off the hook, and beyond that he could do no more.
He decided to slip out of the city that night. At night, the gates were shut, the sentries withdrew from their posts, and the chances of his being detected were the least. At night, he might be able to move fast and far, and lie in hiding by day; and with luck he would see whatever there was to be seen, and return by the next night, or the night after that. He didn’t attempt to consider the consequences if he did not succeed.
Night fell over Dis like a shroud; the sinking of the red sun meant utter and instant darkness, relieved only by the glimmer of the flames building on the horizon, arching overhead to meet in flickers of light. But it would take a long time for the flames to grow to their brightest, and long before they did, Kratak would be away on the broken plain.
There were secret ways out of Dis, known only to a few, and long ago, Kratas had made it his business to be aware of some of them. One was a tunnel that began almost at the base of the Triumphal Arch, under the brooding gaze of the sculptures of the Hell-Beasts and their screaming victims, and Kratak decided this was the safest. Here, in the very centre of the city, the symbolic heart of Dis, no one would suspect him.
In the light of soul-torches set in the walls, the immense Arch with its carvings was a sight to send fear shivering through all beholders, and had been specifically constructed to that end. Nobody went close to the Arch at night without good reason, and Kratak slipped through the shadows quite easily, without being detected.
The tunnel was accessed by a sliding stone set at the foot of one of the winged demon-sculptures guarding the Triumphal Arch, and Kratak descended into darkness only a little less profound than that in the chamber of the Lord. But this was a dry and clean darkness, and Kratak hurried along the narrow tunnel without the feeling of being observed at every step by malignant things in the shadows.
The other end of the tunnel was a block of primordial stone set in the base of one of the highest walls of Dis. There would be watchers on the battlements – there should be, at least – but Kratak knew he was quite safe from observation as long as he stayed close to the wall. He followed it, glancing occasionally skywards where the red and yellow flames flickered and danced. The lower watch-demons feared the flames in the sky, and often spent the night cowering in superstitious dread in whatever shelter they might find. Kratak hoped and expected that would be the case this night. If he was seen, of course, he only had to hold up his staff and he would be allowed to proceed; but he had no desire to let word of his excursion get back to a rival demon-master, or another of the city’s Lords.
He was lucky. The black stone plain of the desert soon stretched between him and the walls of Dis, and he was certain he hadn’t been observed. Despite his size, he could ooze from shadow to shadow like a drifting mist, and the flickering lights overhead helped, making it even more difficult for any observer to see him.
To his right the highway out of Dis stretched like a raised black line out in the desert. At one time, when the cities of Hell were at peace, caravans would have been passing along the roads, trying to make the best of the cooler temperatures of the night. Now the caravans were few, heavily armed, and moved by day, because to rest during the daylight hours was to invite the attentions of the Salamander men, and the highway lay empty and bare.
Kratak crouched in the uncertain shadow of an extrusion of rock, and planned out what he should do. He could not stay away from Dis for long. He could scarcely risk an absence of two days before someone began putting two and two together. But unless he made a serious and at least partially successful attempt at reconnaissance, the Lord would not be pleased. Worse, the Lord might even assume Kratak had been deliberately sabotaging the mission, and the demon-master could not even imagine what would be done to him if the creature on the dark throne decided to act on its assumptions.
He went over what the Lord had told him, and what he had gleaned from his own spies. Admantirax, though outwardly friendly towards Dis, was preparing for war. Alone, Admantirax was not a match for the armies of Dis, even in their current dilapidated state. But the Lords of that city were not alone – they had formed a secret alliance with the most powerful city in Hell.
Far away, many leagues over the horizon, lay mighty Pandemonium. Kratak had never entered its gates or roamed its black, lightless streets. He had only seen its walls, once, from a great distance, rising from the plain as though grown out of the bedrock; and, on a hill in the centre of the city, rose the High Citadel, a construction so gigantic that nothing else in Hell came close to challenging its eminence. Kratak had heard the tales of what went on inside the windowless, dome-topped walls of the High Citadel, and had no desire to get any closer to it.
Now, for whatever reason, Pandemonium had set out to subjugate the other cities of Hell, to bow them to its mighty will. Some had given in at once; some were too far away to be attacked for the present. But of those that held out, Dis, the city that thought of itself as the fount of free thought and progress, was the most important by far. War had not yet broken out, and was probably not inevitable, but Pandemonium desired war, craved it; and Admantirax was a convenient tool to set off the conflict.
Somewhere on the plain, the armies of Admantirax were gathering, secure in the knowledge that mighty Pandemonium stood at their backs. This gathering would not be too far away from Dis, because it would be difficult to march an entire army long distances across the plain without being detected and giving the defenders time to prepare. Small units would even now be making their way across the wastes, making sure to stay far off from the occasional caravans on the road, and seeking to link up with the others. With a little luck, he should be able to find the meeting place.
He had thought this far when there was a stirring and something titanic loomed over him...
The demon-master Kratak was not a coward. He had fought many times, against opponents more powerful than himself, and yet had won every time. He had, as his clothes testified, killed an Abyssal beast single-handed, and earned the right to make an outfit from its skin. But there was a difference between going out to hunt a monster deliberately, and discovering that the hump of rock behind which one has been sheltering is, in fact, one of the gigantic beasts. Kratak went rigid. For an endless moment, he literally could not will himself to move.
It was his rigidity which saved him. The Abyssal monster had, incredible as it seemed, not noticed his existence, even though he had been resting his back against it. As it unfolded to its full height, its armoured belly sagged low over his head, and the soft greyish-pink flesh between the horny plates was open to a thrust of his knife. Kratak did not make that thrust, because the rune-inscribed knife was a puny weapon against a monster of this size; it was surely one of the largest he had ever seen.
Cautiously, moving very slowly, he looked up. The monster’s head was a crag, a boulder, a mass of rough-hewn stone held up at the sky. Its hide was sheathed in armour, its heavy limbs ending in clusters of hooked claws. The jut of its belly almost touched his head, and the smell it gave out was overpowering, a hot dry wild smell, as though of burnt rock. As Kratak crouched low, the monster edged forwards on its short thick legs, blocking out the light, until it had passed over him. It hesitated, its huge head swinging from side to side.
Out on the plain, something reddish and many-limbed writhed and twisted along, scuttling through the flickering shadows. The monster swooped, its craggy head plunging, and the multi-legged creature was scooped up, still squirming frantically. As the beast continued its meal, Kratak took the opportunity to slip into a crevice in the plain, and pressed himself flat into it. When he looked again, the monster was gone.
A very shaken Kratak reached the shelter of a tumbled mass of rocks a little later. It was not the encounter with the Abyssal itself that had shaken him, so much as the fact that such a colossal monster had ventured this close to the walls of Dis without being detected. If a mere unreasoning beast could do this, what might a more intelligent and malignant foe be capable of?
Kratak resolved grimly that he would need to find out.
By now the night was far advanced, and in the light of the flames overhead, he could see things moving across the plain, vague and indefinite. Most, of course, would be products of his imagination and of the light and shadow. A few, though, would be real, and some of them could well be enemies, scouting parties sent out by the armies of Admantirax, perhaps, or even the beginnings of an attack. There was nothing he could do but stay where he was and watch.
It was almost morning before he left his hiding-place. The flames had begun to die down, and the darkness was stealing back across the plain, for a brief while before being banished again by the sun.
He set out on a line across the plain, at a tangent to the direction where Admantirax lay. If the other city had actually set out to assemble an army out on the plain, Kratak could think of only a few places where it would be feasible, and he decided to check them one by one.
As he walked along the plain, the first line of the sun touched the horizon with a line of sullen red.
Kratak heard the shouting before he saw anything else.
The sun was over the low hills in the distance, and the heat mounting, when he heard the noise. It was a sibilant hissing almost at the boundaries of hearing, so high pitched as almost to be whistling. And mixed in it was a much lower noise, grunts mixed with angry lowing noises.
Although he had never heard it himself before, he knew, having heard it described many times before, what the sibilant noise was, and the grunts and bellowing were no mystery. So it was that before he even raised his head above the rock, he knew what he would find.
The Admantirax scouting party must have set out during the night, with the intention of reconnoitring the defences of Dis in the early morning light. It had been large for a scouting party, and quite heavily armed; and this was the only reason why enough of it was left to keep fighting, because it must have been ambushed in the dawn’s first light. But most of it had already been wiped out, and the survivors were hard pressed.
The remnants of the scouting party were drawn up in a rough circle, facing outwards, the weapon-orbs in their grasps crackling and spitting white fire. There were about twenty of them, and three great war-beasts, bone-encased heads held low, and bellowing furiously. The corpses of at least twenty more, and two war-beasts, lay sprawled alongside and amongst them. Kratak recognised the insignia on the nearest of the war-beasts – he had seen it before, on the banners of the Great Lord of Admantirax.
Circling around them, speeding from one bit of cover, a rock or crevice, to another almost as fast as the eye could follow, were the Salamander men. Their whistling voices screeched at each other, the weapons in their hands flashing red when they caught the morning sun. They were circling closer and closer to the Admantirax party, and it was only a matter of time before they made the final charge.
Kratak could only watch helplessly. The scouts from Admantirax were demons like himself, and among them would be at least a few demon-masters; and once he had had friends in Admantirax. At the same time, the Salamander men, as much as he hated them, were, however inadvertently, fighting his city’s enemies. His sympathies were torn.
Even as he expected, the Salamander men launched their mass charge. They attacked from all sides, and in much greater numbers than Kratak had expected from what he had seen of them. They seemed to boil out of the broken plain. Grunting, the demons fought back with their hook-bladed spears and spitting weapon-orbs, and the war-beasts raised themselves on their clumsy hind-limbs and attempted to trample the attackers under. But it was clearly a lost cause, and in moments the scouting party was overrun, their last members going down under the weight of their enemies. The sibilant whistling of the Salamanders merged with the bellows and grunts into a cacophony.
Kratak finally thought to move. He needed to return to Dis as fast as he could. Not only was it no longer safe to remain here any longer, he had already fulfilled his mission. He now knew, with tolerable certainty, where the forces of Admantirax must be; and he could also report of the presence, hitherto unsuspected, of a major raiding party of the Salamander men. And this was his chance to get away, while the savages and the enemy force from Admantirax were still busy fighting each other.
He turned and began to move away, like a drift of smoke crawling from shadow to shadow. Refusing to sacrifice caution for speed, he began edging in the direction of Dis.
He got so far that he almost began to believe he’d made it.
They rose out of the plain suddenly, before him and to the sides, as though they had grown out of the very ground, so many of them that they had him surrounded in a moment. Their weapons, primitive spears and halberds, were levelled at his body, the nearest of them almost touching his armoured skin.
For a long moment, time froze.
Then, one of the Salamanders whistled sibilants, motioning with its halberd at Kratak’s belt. Moving slowly so the creature didn’t slash him by reflex, Kratak took the knife from his belt and held it out. A quick snatch, and it vanished from his hand. Another motion from the halberd, and they took his Sigil staff as well. Kratak had no idea why. Maybe they mistook it for a weapon.
As they led him off across the baking rock, still surrounded by their weapons, Kratak got his first opportunity to get a good look at the Salamander men. He had never seen one before, and observed them with keen intellectual interest.
They were quite small, the largest hardly reaching halfway to his shoulder, but so broad and thick-bodied that they looked almost as wide as they were tall. And, yet, despite their muscle-bound appearance, they moved with a quickness and grace that made Kratak look clumsy and slow.
They were dressed in a manner which explained why he had been surprised by them earlier, in roughly textured cloaks that wrapped them almost completely from head to foot, and coloured the exact same shade as the bedrock of the plain. Below the hoods of the cloaks bulged large eyes set with iridescent pupils, set high up on smooth greyish faces. Each time the creatures made one of their whistling noises, the lower part of the face opened and closed, like a curtain being pulled across a window. Despite his disgust, Kratak stared at them, fascinated.
Soon afterwards, they met a much larger group of Salamander men. There was no doubt which group this was, for they had with them two war-beasts marked with the emblem of Admantirax and loaded down with weapons-orbs and hooked spears, apart from several wounded Salamanders each. Kratak was impressed despite himself that they had not only managed to capture the beasts alive, but had evidently mastered the art of controlling them, something not easy even for the average demon-soldier.
When the other group’s members saw Kratak, they stopped and stared, and a long discussion began between the two parties. It seemed to the demon-master that the others were demanding that he be killed on the spot, but that his captors were resisting, and intent on keeping him prisoner. He had begun to think about rushing his guards and making an attempt, however futile, to escape, when the quarrel seemed to resolve itself, abruptly, and both parties merged and continued trudging across the plain. Whatever Kratak’s eventual fate was to be, for the time being, the prisoner faction had evidently won.
They walked through most of the day. The Salamander men seemed tireless, and trotted along so quickly that Kratak and the war-beasts had trouble keeping up. Salamander men with levelled spears followed all three unhappy captives, jabbing them with the blades to keep them moving. The sun overhead was pitiless, blazing down so hot that the air seemed to have turned to fire, and the exposed rocks looked as though they had melted and run like wax. And still the forced march went on.
Despite his pain and exhaustion, Kratak tried to get to know as much as he could of the savages. They were obviously much tougher physically than he had assumed, and capable of far greater mobility than the slow and clumsy armies of the cities. It was no wonder that they had been able to come so far from their strongholds in the mountains in the south, where the demons had driven them, aeons before. And, far from being the rabble that they were supposed to be, they evidently had a fairly high degree of organisation. Kratak wondered which the greater threat to Dis was, the armies of Admantirax and Pandemonium, or the bands of these Salamanders. The only reassuring thing was that they didn’t seem to have the heavy weaponry required to assault a city.
Several times during the day, he tried to communicate with the Salamander men guarding him. At first he tries to talk to them in the common speech of the cities, and when that had no effect, he tried out the High Speech of Hell. That had no effect either, nor had thinking at them on the off chance that they might be telepathic. Finally, as best he could, he tried sign language. That got their attention, after a fashion, but all it did was earn him a jab or two from a spear blade. He stopped trying after that.
The sun had almost sunk below the horizon when the Salamanders finally stopped. Throughout the latter part of the day, they had been displaying increasing urgency, goading the war-beasts unmercifully, and Kratak had to exert himself to the utmost to avoid a similar fate. Only when the distant flat-topped mound appeared did they finally relax and slow down slightly.
Kratak had heard of these mounds, though he had never seen one before. Once, they had served as sanctuaries or bases for the Salamanders, in the days when the Demons had been forced into their world and had had to fight to take it over. Apparently, the band of Salamander men had put this one to use again.
There were narrow steps leading up to the flattened top, which had, at some time so distant that the rocks had smoothed down over the years, been hollowed out. Inside, concentric series of terraces led down to a small floor space far below, and the walls had been cut back into galleries and chambers. Without the labour of Souls, and with only primitive tools, it must have taken a terrific amount of work to produce this, and Kratak found himself again wondering if the Salamander men were such savages after all.
The two war-beasts were already being relieved of their burden of captured weapons and injured Salamanders in the floor space at the bottom of the terraces. Kratak realised that there must be another way inside; moreover, one large enough to permit the passage of a fully laden war-beast. However, he hadn’t seen any hint of an opening at the base of the mound, which meant that it was at least as well-concealed as the one by which he had left Dis.
The escort of spear-wielding Salamander men only took him down on to the second terrace. The sides were carved into doorless rooms, some of which were high enough to be able to accommodate a demon of Kratak’s stature. Into one of these latter, he was thrust unceremoniously, and two Salamanders cuffed his arm and attached the cuff to a chain set into the rock. When he tried to pull, he found the chain was far too tightly fitted to be loosened, and of some metal too strong to be broken even by his formidable strength. A small group of Salamanders kept watch outside, whistling at each other in their peculiar high-pitched speech and throwing glances at him over their shoulders.
Left, comparatively, to himself, Kratak took the opportunity to rest, sitting down on the floor of the cell as best he could. From where he was, he could see the opposite side of the terraces much of the way down, and as the sun sank and the flames of the night began to rise, it took on a fantastic quality. Small groups of Salamanders went back and forth along the terraces, all still wrapped in their stone-coloured clothes. Sometimes, some of them would pass by the mouth of his cell, look in, and say something to his guards.
Kratak, like most others of his kind, was incapable of true sleep, but was able to achieve a kind of torpor. Deciding that worrying about his current circumstances would not help matters, he pushed away his thoughts and leaned back against the wall of the cell. Little by little his tusked snout drooped on his chest, and his amber eyes, though lidless, lost expression and filmed over.
Suddenly his head snapped up, his mind returning instantaneously to alertness. His eyes had seen something – something that must have been unusual enough, in this place where everything was unusual, to call him back from rest.
Whatever he had seen, it was outside. The flames burned high in the night sky, but Kratak was sure he’d seen something, not just a play of shadows. And, peering at the galleries across the way, Kratak saw it again.
Walking along the terrace was a Soul.
If he had been in Dis, Kratak wouldn’t have spared the Soul a second glance. They were everywhere in the cities; after all, the cities themselves were built of and by them. In this Salamander stronghold, though, it was unnatural and unsettling. He craned his neck and stretched as far as he could to keep it in view, but it had already passed from sight, and he couldn’t see it again.
It was as troubling as it was amazing. What was a Soul doing here? Had it wandered by some unknown passage to this place, and did that mean that the Salamanders had some hidden route into Dis or one of the other cities?
Or was he imagining things? Was his mind finally beginning to break down under the strain, and was he trying to make himself believe he was back in Dis by projecting memories from the city on to his present captivity? If so, could he trust himself any longer?
But, he thought, if it was really a product of his imagination, why should he have imagined a Soul, of all things? He never had anything to do with them. They were far beneath his notice, merely part of the background, the wards of watch-demons and labour supervisors. If his mind was really going, would he have imagined something as unimportant as a mere Soul?
And if he wasn’t, what was the Soul doing here?
Kratak didn’t have a clear idea of what the Souls were. That they were creatures meant to serve the demons was clear enough, in whatever way they could be used. But whence they came, and whether they had any will, desire or personality of their own, these were things Kratak had never had to think about.
Kratak was still pondering these questions when there was a movement in the doorway and he looked up, sharply.
The Soul stood there, looking at him.
Kratak and the Soul stared at each other. For the first time ever, the demon master took a close look at one of those beings. The Soul was small, grey, and naked; one of its upper limbs was partially broken away. Its smooth and hairless head had small, regular features, and its upper torso had two protuberances in front. It came to Kratak that the creature was probably a female.
“What are you?” Kratak asked at last, in the common speech. “What are you doing here?”
The Soul hesitated before answering, as though analysing his words for depth of meaning. “I stay here,” she said.
“Stay here? You mean, among these savages? I never heard of them harbouring a Soul.”
“They are not savages! They took me in – they saved me, and took care of me...” The Soul glanced back at the guards, who weren’t paying them the slightest notice. “If not for them, I’d still have been destroying myself out on the plain.”
“You were on the plain? How’s that? Souls are supposed to be at work in the cities, not out on the plain.”
“I ran away.” The Soul sounded, incredibly, defiant. Kratak couldn’t remember ever having heard of a Soul daring to reply to even a lowly watch-demon before, and this thing was standing up to him, a demon-master. Of course, he was a captive, but that didn’t change their relative positions. “I ran away from the mines, and these people found me and took care of me.”
Kratak shook his immense head, trying to understand. “But how could you run away? You’re just a working beast. You don’t have the intelligence to run away, do you?”
“A working beast?” The Soul seemed to be surprised at the idea, more than outraged. “But, of course, that’s probably how you do think of us, don’t you? As working beasts? You probably never even gave us a second thought.” She had stepped into the room, now, and Kratak wondered if he could catch hold of her if she came any closer. Evidently, one of the guards had noticed her and thought the same thing, for it whistled something at her. She made a noise back at it.
“What’s this? You can communicate with these creatures?”
“After a fashion.” The Soul stood within the cell, careful to stay out of reach of Kratak. “They aren’t stupid, you know. Nor am I.”
“Yes, I’m beginning to realise that.” Kratak peered at the Soul. “You’re the first I ever heard of one of you having a mind, though. How is that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I ran away so soon after I got to Hell? Perhaps staying under the lash makes us go dull just in order to cope.”
“You got to Hell? Where from?” Kratak was genuinely interested, his other problems forgotten for the moment. “You were somewhere else before?”
“Yes...I don’t remember everything about it. I don’t even remember the name I used to have, but I was a woman, a woman in love, and I died for that love. That’s how I ended up in Hell.”
“Love? I have heard the word, but I don’t know what it means. But tell me something about yourself, all you can remember.”
“Why?” It was a simple question.
“Because I want to know,” Kratak said. “Because I didn’t know Souls even had minds, and because new knowledge should never be refused.”
The Soul looked back at him for a while.
“All right,” she said at last. “I’ll tell you.”
The light through the window was bright, even through the frosted glass, the blue of the sky a blurred smear across the top of the pane.
It seemed a cheat, she thought, lying back in the tub. The day one was going to die shouldn’t be bright and sunny. It ought to be grey and weeping with rain, the world mourning one’s passing. But life wasn’t fair, or she wouldn’t be here, in the tub, waiting to die.
From her wrists the blood coiled in red snakes into the water. It had been easy, in the end, to slash through the thin skin, the veins so large and blue beneath parting to the knife. The pain was sharp, but had lasted only a moment. Now, she felt nothing at all.
Somewhere on the other side of the wall, people were on holiday, laughing and quarrelling and sleeping together. Children were on vacation, away with their parents or running through the grass in the parks, chasing butterflies and wrestling with family dogs. Somewhere, there were other men and women at work, tapping on computer keyboards and manipulating the future of corporations and financial empires. Somewhere, the world went on.
She felt a whimper rise in her throat. Surely he would have thought of her by now? Surely he would have begun aching for her again, realised just what she had felt for him, and asked her to come back to him? But the cell-phone by the bathtub stayed stubbornly silent.
She thought again of the last time they had talked. His face had been wooden, frozen with the anger he held within himself, afraid of spilling it, afraid of the loss of control over himself that it meant. She had known him so well, even at the times she felt she’d not known him at all.
She’d told him her side of the story. She’d known she was losing him, felt him withdrawing, with every word which passed her lips; but she’d gone on anyway. She’d told him of her fear and insecurity, how she dreaded being hurt, above all hurt by him. She had held nothing back.
Afterwards, empty, she’d looked at him, and he’d looked back at her. Shaking his head, he had stood up, and walked away, without once looking back, and she’d let him go.
Now, she lay in the bathtub, the water steadily turning red, hiding her pale naked body. He had told her many times that he loved her body. She hadn’t dared to believe it.
The ceiling was turning grey and indistinct, and she thought that the skies were finally clouding, and the world was preparing, after all, to mourn. But when she looked at the window, at the bathroom fittings, everything was turning grey and indistinct. She knew then that she was bleeding out.
Dimly, as though from a vast distance, she heard her cell-phone ring, with his special ring-tone, the one she’d assigned him as a joke, the ring-tone she had been waiting for. She made an effort to reach it, but her arm was too heavy to lift. The room greyed and went black.
The last thing she heard was the cell-phone ringing.
The demon Kratak sat back and tried to assimilate what the creature had just told him. He felt as though the entire foundation of his existence had suddenly been removed, everything he had taken as a law of nature challenged. “And you suffer when you’re made to work?” he repeated.
“More than you can imagine. Our existence is nothing but suffering. That’s why we erase ourselves – because we can’t endure the suffering otherwise.”
“You may not believe me when I say this,” Kratak said, “but I – we – never imagined you suffer. It would never be my intention to make you suffer. We have enough problems of our own without that.”
“You have problems, certainly.” The Soul glanced pointedly at the chain holding Kratak to the wall. “How did you come to be taken by them? Were you in the war party they ambushed?”
“No. Actually, I wasn’t.” Kratak found himself talking of all that had happened since the Lord had summoned him to the chamber deep beneath Dis. Once he began talking, the words flowed easier. By the time he finished, dawn had already begun to gnaw the night away. “And that is what happened to me,” he said.
The Soul looked down at the rock at her feet for a long time. “It seems as though we both have to adjust our ways of thinking about each other,” she said. “I’d thought you were a just a monster, I suppose, utterly evil. I never thought there was anything more to you.”
“I...” Before Kratak could say any more, there was an interruption. A large group of armed Salamander men arrived, whistling at each other. They saw the Soul there and whistled at her.
“They are here to interrogate you,” the Soul explained.
“What do they want to know?”
“They’re asking how you got away from the party they ambushed, and what the plans of your city are against them.”
“Tell them what I told you. I’m from Dis, not Admantirax, and I wasn’t part of the lot they attacked. That lot are our enemies.”
The Soul and the Salamander men spoke to each other briefly. “They aren’t convinced you’re telling the truth,” she said. “They have more questions.”
“I’ve told you all I can say,” Kratak said after a while. “There’s nothing I can help them with.”
There was some more talking. “They’re deciding what to do with you,” the Soul reported.
“And what’s the verdict? If they try to kill me, they’re going to have to get in close, and I can assure you I’m not going to die easily.”
“Some of them are thinking of killing you,” the Soul said, “but the others are saying it would be better to hold you captive. Perhaps your city would ransom you.”
Kratak snorted. “My rivals would be more than glad to get rid of me,” he replied. “Probably they’re celebrating already.”
The Soul shook her head. “I almost pity you,” she told him. “You’re worse off than me in that city of the damned, it seems to me.” She turned to the Salamanders, who were evidently asking her something. She talked to them for a while. After a little more discussion, the Salamander men went away, leaving Kratak and the Soul alone once more.
“So – what was that all about?” Kratak asked. “What is their decision?”
“You live – for now, at least. They made up their minds on the basis of what I told them.”
The Soul looked at him oddly. “I told them that you were on the point of rebelling against the city, and that you might be an ally, given time. I was lying, of course.”
“Of course you were. I would never rebel against...” Kratak broke off. Hadn’t he been thinking more and more of the utter pointlessness of his existence in the city? Every moment he survived meant only that the immediate threats were defeated. There were always more enemies, more dangers to be avoided, more Lords to be appeased. “Why did you tell them that?” he asked.
The Soul made a peculiar gesture, raising her one unbroken arm to her side, palm upwards. “I wanted to know more about you,” she said.
“And you wanted to talk,” Kratak said.
“Well, yes,” she acknowledged. “That, too.”
They came for Kratak the next evening. There were at least ten of them, holding spears levelled at his body, while another couple loosened the shackles from his wrist. The feeling flooded back into the arm, and Kratak almost cried out with the pain of it. The Salamander men whistled at him, sounded angry and excited.
“What’s going on?” Kratak asked the Soul, who had come hurrying in. “I thought you said they weren’t going to kill me.”
“That’s what they said. Please don’t start a fight until I get a chance to talk to them.” The Soul turned to the Salamanders, and turned back to Kratak after a while. “They aren’t killing you,” she said. “It’s a test.”
“A test? What kind of test? What for?”
“I don’t quite understand what they’re saying, but you’re to undergo some kind of ordeal. If you pass, you’re welcome to stay. If you don’t...it won’t matter anyway.”
The Salamanders hustled Kratak up the terraces to the top of the mound, and indicated that he was to descend the stairs to the plain. One of them held out something to him, and he found it was his knife and the staff with his Sigil. The Salamanders whistled.
“You’re to go down,” the Soul said. “They’ll be watching.”
Kratak began walking down the stairs, throwing a puzzled look over his shoulder. The Salamander men were drawn up on top, staring down at him with a peculiar stillness.
“Kratak?” the Soul called suddenly. “Please make sure you come back. For my sake, if not yours.” She lifted her one remaining hand to him, and turned away.
Kratak stood on the plain, alone. Behind him the Salamanders on the mound were silhouettes against the fiery skies of the night, before him the tumbled bedrock. He looked around, saw nothing, and began walking along the side of the mound, to see if he could find the entrance through which the war-beasts had been admitted.
There was a scarcely audible rush in the shadows, and the Abyssal beast was upon him.
Kratak’s reflexes – honed over the course of his long life – were excellent, and they were all that saved him in that moment. He threw himself down, rolling to the side, and the monster’s immense mouth slashed down fruitlessly, its jaws cracking on air. Kratak pushed himself to hands and knees, staring up at the beast as it rose to its full height, its head weaving side to side, questing. It was smaller than the one he’d seen earlier, but still huge, with beaked jaws and heavy plates covering its body. He could see its tiny eyes, glittering in the bony carapace covering its head. It was only a matter of a moment before it would see him, and this time it wouldn’t miss.
There was only one thing to do, so Kratak did it. Gathering his legs under him, he launched himself at the monster as fast as he could run.
The beast saw him almost at once, but was wrong-footed by his charge. The prey was supposed to try and escape, not run towards it at top speed. The monster’s instincts tried to adjust to fit this novel situation, and it bent again, jaws gaping, aiming at where it thought the scuttling creature ought to be.
Kratak felt the immense head come down, the foetid breath of the thing, but he was too fast for it. He ducked under its descending jaws, and was between its forelimbs. Jumping, he wrapped one arm around the nearest leg, and with the other stabbed up between the plates covering its throat, the rune-inscribed knife sliding into the soft tissue to the hilt.
The monster shrieked, writhing, and Kratak was nearly shaken loose, He hung on somehow, twisting the knife in the wound, trying to free it to stab again, and it came loose at last, followed by spurt after spurt of hot black blood. The Abyssal reared, and Kratak suddenly found himself flying through the air, coming down with great force on his back on the rock. His head struck something, and he lost consciousness.
He woke to feel hands on him, urging him up. The Salamanders were around him, holding on to his arms, gently pushing him towards the mound. The Soul was there too, peering up at him with unmistakable anxiety on her face.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“I don’t think anything’s broken,” he said. “Where’s the Abyssal?”
“You mean that monster-thing?” The Soul pointed with her remaining hand. The corpse of the Abyssal was already surrounded by a group of Salamanders who were busy hacking it apart. “They’ll eat it?”
“They won’t waste it, that’s for sure. Did you know they were going to feed me to it?”
“No, they didn’t tell me what the test was. I only found out when it attacked you.”
Kratak shrugged, suddenly feeling immensely weary. “Did I pass the test at least?” he asked. “Or is there more?”
“I’ll ask.” The Soul said something to the Salamanders. One of them glanced up at Kratak, and replied.
“You passed,” the Soul translated. “They asked me to tell you that you’ve taken the first step towards becoming one of their own.”
“I’ll never be one of their own.” Kratak paused. “You told me to come back for your sake if not mine. Why was that?”
The Soul shrugged, not answering. Her one hand reached up, and for the first time, they touched. Together, they walked up the stairs to the top of the mound.
The fires mounted from the horizon into Hell’s starless sky.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011